Elia Kazan: A Biography


"Few figures in film and theater history tower like Elia Kazan. Born in 1909 to Greek parents in Istanbul, Turkey, he arrived in America with incomparable vision and drive, and by the 1950s he was the most important and influential director in the nation, simultaneously dominating both theater and film. His productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman reshaped the values of the stage. His films - most notably On the Waterfront - brought a new realism and a new intensity of performance to the movies. Kazan's career spanned times ...
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Elia Kazan

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"Few figures in film and theater history tower like Elia Kazan. Born in 1909 to Greek parents in Istanbul, Turkey, he arrived in America with incomparable vision and drive, and by the 1950s he was the most important and influential director in the nation, simultaneously dominating both theater and film. His productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman reshaped the values of the stage. His films - most notably On the Waterfront - brought a new realism and a new intensity of performance to the movies. Kazan's career spanned times of enormous change in his adopted country, and his work affiliated him with many of America's great artistic moments and figures, from New York City's Group Theatre of the 1930s to the rebellious forefront of 1950s Hollywood; from Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to Marlon Brando and James Dean." Ebullient and secretive, bold and self-doubting, beloved yet reviled for "naming names" before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Kazan was an individual as complex and fascinating as any he directed.
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Editorial Reviews

John Simon
… a biography, a stirring bit of social history and a panorama of Broadway and Hollywood during what may have been their glory days. It could not be a more pertinent study of a spellbinding subject.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to give Kazan (1909-2003) an honorary Oscar in 1999, it rekindled the lingering resentment over his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee nearly 50 years earlier. Schickel, who produced a short film for the Academy's presentation and covered the controversy in his role as Time's movie critic, has virtually no sympathy for Kazan's detractors, arguing that HUAC was "a harsh and permanent fact of American life" in the early Cold War era and, more importantly, that Kazan was testifying against Stalinists, not innocent liberals. He also observes that Kazan's early efforts at self-defense may ironically have worked against him, sealing his image in the public eye. The biography's main goal, however, is to restore Kazan's artistic achievements to their rightful prominence in his life story. Working with the director's extensive production notes, Schickel traces Kazan's rise from a fledgling actor in the Method-touting ensemble the Group Theatre to his creative pinnacle presenting Tennessee Williams on Broadway while making films like 1954's On the Waterfront. Despite Schickel's friendship with his subject, this analysis is unsparingly thorough, to the point where Schickel's forceful, personalized criticism becomes as attention grabbing as Kazan's body of work. Photos. Agents, Don Congdon and Susan Ramer. (Nov. 8) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
From the end of World War II to the early 1960s, director Elia Kazan (1909-2003) had an unparalleled string of triumphs on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood. A former actor, he worked with some of America's most gifted playwrights-Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge-and showcased the talents of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift. Kazan also reluctantly named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952-an act that earned him the enmity of his colleagues and later started a firestorm of controversy when he was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1998. Drawing on years of friendship with Kazan, as well as access to the director's thoughtful, meticulous production notes, esteemed movie critic and film scholar Schickel (D.W. Griffith: An American Life) perceptively weighs each Kazan production, reserving the most space for key works like the stage productions of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire and overlooked or forgotten films like Viva Zapata! and Wild River. Kazan's lifelong attachment to his identity as a first-generation immigrant, his views on the theater's role in promoting social change, and, of course, the still relevant argument of whether Kazan should have cooperated with HUAC are also addressed. This masterly meditation on a complex, conflicted, and underappreciated director deserves a place on the shelf beside Kazan's autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life. One of the year's best biographies; highly recommended for all collections on stage and screen history.-Stephen Rees, Levittown Lib., PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Time magazine film critic Schickel seeks to bolster Kazan's reputation as a major American film and theater talent. Fifty-three years after he named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Elia Kazan remains a lightning rod. Mention of his name draws anger, as the outcries over his receiving an honorary Oscar in 1999 attest. Controversy unfairly clouds Kazan's oeuvre, Schickel argues, claiming that "no one has ever been such a dominant directorial force simultaneously in film and theater." Shickel's objectives thus become two-fold: to challenge the impact-or the damage-of Kazan's HUAC testimony, and to assess the value of the plays and films Kazan directed. The author follows Kazan's work in the 1930s with the Group Theater, emphasizing that Kazan's eventual disenchantment with their work centered on matters related to Communism. Kazan, he repeats, endorsed only the more general ideals of Communism while disdaining the goals of American Communists, which many Group members embraced. Kazan's career reached an unparalleled ascendancy during the '50s, Schickel writes, with two now classic Broadway productions, A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, and several films, notably On the Waterfront. Working with Kazan's hitherto unpublished production notebooks, Schickel provides valuable insight into Kazan's work on these lyrical plays and documentary-like films. As for Kazan's HUAC testimony, which coincided with this peak in his career, he downplays its damage and empathizes with its practicality: not to name the names of people who were going to be exposed sooner or later, Schickel writes, would have been career suicide for the director. "The blacklist wasonly occasionally a tragedy; mostly it was an inconvenience," he concludes, an observation that's certain to keep churning the arguments over Kazan's actions before HUAC. These appraisals, notable for their broad critical vision, may persuade some to reconsider Kazan's work, if not his political behavior.
Arthur Schlesinger
“A splendid, subtle, literate biography of one of the grand creative artists of theater and film in our time.”
Martin Scorsese
“Schickel has a razor-sharp understanding of the many ways in which his subject’s life and work affected one another.”
New York Sun
“Theater and film buffs — not to mention scholars — will revel in this astute explication of a working life.”
New York Press
“...contains not a single dull moment for those interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of theater and movies...”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Richard Schickel has produced the first ‘life’ of Kazan...[with] an impressive knowledge of the terrain [and] soundly balanced judgments.”
Grand Rapids Press
“Outstanding....Perhaps, thanks to Schickel’s biography, history will once again remember Kazan primarily for his accomplishments, not his testimony.”
The Economist
“A worthy companion to the director’s own autobiography...immensely likeable.”
Booklist (starred review)
“This sympathetic, scrupulously researched biography...vividly conveys the director’s potent personality...”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“A scintillating and thoroughly readable new biography.”
New York Times Book Review
“Breathtaking, often riotous but never excessive...[Elia Kazan] could not be a more pertinent study of a spellbinding subject.”
Buffalo News
“One of those exhilarating publishing rarities — the ideal writer for the ideal subject.”
"This sympathetic, scrupulously researched biography...vividly conveys the director’s potent personality..."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060195793
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/8/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 544
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 2.44 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Schickel has written many books about film, including The Disney Version, Brando: A Life in Our Times, and Clint Eastwood: A Biography. He is a film critic for Time magazine and the producer-writer-director of more than thirty documentary films about figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Elia Kazan.

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Read an Excerpt

Elia Kazan

A Biography
By Richard Schickel

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Richard Schickel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060195797

Chapter One

The Anatolian Smile

He wanted to be something -- somebody -- long before he knew what, exactly, he wanted to be. In that sense, Elia Kazan's story is a typical immigrant's story. There is something fierce and needy about this young man that chimes with the tales of thousands upon thousands of American newcomers in the first decades of the twentieth century. For these young strangers, living, often precariously, in families where English was forever the second language, the simple desire to make something of themselves -- they didn't much care what, as long as it entailed rising out of a class treated contemptuously by America's ruling WASPs -- was their ruling passion.

But making something of yourself implies a remaking of that self -- either by aping the manner, dress, speech, attitudes of the elite or by becoming a determined rebel, if not a full-scale revolutionary. The annals of the radical left (and, more recently, the radical right) are rich in figures from bourgeois families (as Kazan's briefly was) who became cultural and political subversives (as Kazan did, in his early years).

He could not, however, long maintain the dedicated political or cultural radical's vow of poverty. The pull of his family's values and ambitions was too strong. They had come to America for the simplest reasons -- to escape tyranny in their native land (they were Anatolian Greeks, ruled for centuries by Turks) -- and to make good, which they defined simply as making as much money as possible as quickly as possible. Kazan might insist that he remained a lifelong "man of the left." But he also remained his father's son and his uncle's nephew, inheriting their Depression-dashed dreams of riches.

So there was always in Elia Kazan a conflict between his ideals and his ambitions. It was a conflict he tried to ameliorate -- though he never succeeded in fully settling it -- by burying a profound anger under an air of eager accommodation, of ostensible good nature. It was a conflict that shaped the potent realism of his plays and movies, imparting to them a passion, a psychological intensity; particularly in the performances of his actors, that was largely without precedent in the theatrical arts, and hugely influential on their later history.

Kazan's autobiography, A Life, published in 1988, when he was seventy-nine years old, begins with a reflection on his seemingly perpetual outrage, and his lifelong need to cover it with his " Anatolian smile," an expression, much remarked upon by Greeks of his and previous generations, betokening a sort of noncommittal agreeability; at once distant and obliging -- but masking one's deepest feelings. Looking back Kazan wrote simply, "I used to spend most of my time straining to be a nice guy so people would like me."

The Anatolian smile may be a sort of racial tic, but after his arrival in the United States (at age four), it became a major tool of survival. His father, George -- full name Kazanjioglou -- was an old-world paterfamilias, demanding absolute obedience to his will in matters both great and small. One of George's brothers, whose story his nephew would eventually tell with candor, sympathy and irony in America, America, as well as in two novels, had preceded them and set up a carpet business, in which George joined him. By the l9zos, that business was prospering -- though "Uncle Joe" had left it -- and George and his family had moved to a fine suburban house. His father expected Elia and his brother to join him in the business-no questions asked or, for that matter, permitted.

But Kazan's mother, Athena, strong-minded and stubborn, had other ideas for him. She entered into a "conspiracy" (Kazan's word) with one of his high school teachers in New Rochelle to see if her bright lad could gain admission to a good college. They settled on Williams College, for no other reason, so far as Kazan could remember, except that its WASPy name appealed to them. He enthusiastically joined the conspiracy, working after school and on summer vacation to earn money for his tuition. When his father was informed of Elia's college acceptance, he struck his wife so hard that she was knocked to the floor. Shortly thereafter, they began sleeping in separate bedrooms.

The old man was -- and remained -- a frightening figure to Kazan. Many years later, Kazan's son Nicholas would recall that the only man he had ever seen his father fear was George Kazan, which Kazan himself admitted in his book. By the time Nick could observe the two men together his grandfather was a shrunken, silent figure, but still capable of making his famous son tremble.

It is worth observing that such characters, confident and bullying (until, generally, they got their comeuppance), became staples in all Kazan's work. They are, symbolically, fascist tyrants ruling the little nations -- fractious, rebellious, struggling for democratic emergence-that is the family in so many of his dramas.

That someday he would make such use of his own family's drama had not entered Kazan's mind when his parents deposited him, wearing a boxy, itchy blue serge suit, on the idyllic Williams campus in the fall of 1926. It did not occur to him at any time in the four subsequent years, which were anything but idyllic to Kazan. He was obliged to supplement his savings by waiting tables at fraternity houses where, amid the well-born and well-favored, he was patronized when he was noticed at all. He yearned for the frat boys' dates, the lithe, blond girls he served meals, but he was only comfortable with small, dark, intense young women. He also wanted to be smooth and articulate like their handsome swains.

But often he would go days without speaking -- a swarthy, runty, big-nosed outsider, nursing a new set of resentments. "It . . . made me rebellious. It also made me join the Communist Party at a certain time because I got resentful of being excluded. I was an outsider . . . but I also was sympathetic with people that were struggling to get up, because I struggled to get up."


Excerpted from Elia Kazan by Richard Schickel Copyright © 2005 by Richard Schickel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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